Accessibility must be built into technology from the beginning of the process, and the technology must be tested with input from people with disabilities, according to the United States Digital Service.

USDS released information last week on how to make government websites accessible, which said that accessibility standards, similar to cybersecurity standards, should be built into a system from the beginning of the production process, because it’s more difficult to attach accessibility once the product is finished.

“Many designs are going to be onerous to make accessible after the fact,” said Nick Heiner, software engineer for USDS. “You can save a ton of development time and headaches by baking accessibility in upfront.”

In order to ensure that agencies’ websites work at a comparable standard for users with disabilities, agencies must test their sites with assistive technologies and with users with disabilities, according to Heiner.

“Non-sighted users, for instance, use screen readers that read an app’s content aloud instead of displaying it on a screen,” said Heiner. “The only way to know if your content works well on a screen reader is to try it out—automated scanners or reading the code yourself will only catch a few issues.”

These accessibility standards from the USDS came out a week after the Information Technology Innovation Foundation’s report that found that 58 percent of the top Federal websites passed accessibility standards. Websites such as the Internal Revenue Service and the International Trade Administration received low scores on the Federal guidelines for accessibility.

ITIF found that some websites didn’t add a descriptive label to all forms on a website to instruct users when to provide input, weren’t easily navigable for users with a disability because information or interactive elements on a Web page were not in a sequential order, didn’t make it easy for users to discern content, and failed to make text sufficiently readable and understandable.

Heiner said that accessibility is the same within government and within industry. ITIF found that some popular industry sites did not meet accessibility standards because they didn’t have the government policies to adhere to. However, Heiner said that accessibility should not require these standards.

“Content is accessible when it can be used by users with a disability, period,” Heiner said. “There are many ways to achieve this. Following a particular implementation pattern is not necessary to achieve accessibility.”

Heiner also said that making a product 100 percent accessible is an unreasonable goal. Federal standards only require a user experience that’s “comparable” between a user with and without a disability.

Heiner discouraged developers from reverting to a text-only version of the website to meet accessibility standards.

“Users with a disability do not like being sent off to a separate experience, and frequently find that the text-only version is an afterthought that receives updates much less frequently than the main version,” Heiner said. “And, it costs you more to maintain multiple versions.”


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Morgan Lynch
Morgan Lynch
Morgan Lynch is a Staff Reporter for MeriTalk covering Federal IT and K-12 Education.